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Immigrant Children Bear the Anxiety of Political Tough Talk

At Public School 78 in Staten Island, New York, Community School Director Maria Brancale has been seeing a lot of empty chairs lately. Half of the school’s students come from immigrant families, and ever since the federal crackdown on immigration she has seen a sharp drop in attendance among parents enrolled in English as a Second Language classes.

“They’re afraid to leave their houses,” says Brancale, who was born in Cuba.

Brancale sees the same attendance problem with the children. “Kids aren’t coming to school because they’re scared, and even the ones who are coming to school aren’t performing. They’re thinking that when they go home, mommy and daddy won’t be there. It’s affecting them academically as well as emotionally,” she says.

In January, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) issued a statement  warning that many children in immigrant families are experiencing anxiety. “When children are scared, it can impact their health and development,” AAP President Fernando Stein wrote. “Indeed, fear and stress, particularly prolonged exposure to serious stress — known as toxic stress — can harm the developing brain and negatively impact short- and long-term health.”

The stress that Brancale sees in the children of P.S. 78, also called The Stapleton Lighthouse Community School, is substantively different from that she experienced after she and her family began a new life in New York City in 1969, when she was 5 years old. The family fled Cuba and were granted political asylum in the United States. And while those early days in their adopted country were often tough, Brancale never feared a middle-of-the-night knock on the door.

“I felt very safe,” she says.

There are plenty of resources that could help these kids, but we aren’t aligning them with each other and connecting them to the community.

Brancale’s family lived in a tight-knit Cuban neighborhood, where they enjoyed the support of friends and extended family. At school, however, Brancale felt like she was on her own. She had to repeat the first grade because her teacher spoke no Spanish and there were no ESL classes available. But with time and an English tutor, she excelled, eventually attending New York University on a full scholarship and graduating at the top of her class.

At P.S. 78, Brancale tries to offer the support that she missed. She helps parents navigate various public and private services to help children perform at their best. For example, when she saw that many children didn’t have glasses, she brought in a vision company to provide free screenings and glasses. She helped find dentists to fill cavities in the library, and helped parents get resources for their special-needs children.

Still, she would like to see a more comprehensive system that could help all children of immigrant families get the support they need. “There are plenty of resources that could help these kids, but we aren’t aligning them with each other and connecting them to the community,” she says.

To that end, she’s working with hospitals, colleges, and nonprofits to  streamline services. For example, she’d like to see students receive more guidance with the immigration process, noting that she didn’t even think to pursue citizenship until she accompanied her father to his swearing in ceremony, during college.

“I went through all those years of high school, but the only reason I became a citizen was that I went with my dad to the federal building and thought, ‘You know, I should do this.’ Nobody guided me,” she says. “You hear stories of kids who have been here their entire lives but aren’t here legally. Somewhere along the line, someone should have said, ‘You’re about to go to college. Maybe you should think about becoming a U.S. citizen.’ ”

Of course, the best programs in the world won’t help the child who is too afraid to go to school, and Brancale hopes to see immigration policy that considers the repercussions that political “tough talk” has on the youngest and most vulnerable new Americans. “We need to get a better perspective on this,” she says.

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